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As Pakistan goes to the polls, many see a key milestone

This is the first time in Pakistan's 66 years that a democratic government has been able to complete its tenure without being toppled by the military. But change is slow, say analysts.  

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Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or Moment for Justice party attend an election campaign rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, Thursday.

Anjum Naveed/AP

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Pakistan will undergo its first transition ever from one democratically elected government to the next, as the country holds national elections Saturday.

The country is marking a key milestone in seeing a democratic government that has been able to complete its tenure without being toppled. The country’s security forces are notorious for overthrowing three democratic governments in the Pakistan’s 66-year history. The Army’s frequent interventions have meant civilian-military ties have been a key factor in politics – prompting many to ask whether there will be any significant change after the election results come in.

Most analysts predict that the elections will have little immediate impact on Pakistan’s relations with its security forces – and therefore on its foreign policy, over which the Army retains considerable control.

“When it comes to some of the most important decisions within foreign and security policy – operations in the tribal areas, military relations with the United States, even relations with Afghanistan – the Army will continue to sit in the driver’s seat,” says Cyril Almeida, a political analyst and journalist at Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.

Political and security analyst Raza Rumi agrees. He thinks that the man most likely to become prime minister, center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party leader Nawaz Sharif, has the qualities needed to rebalance civilian-military relations. However, early predictions of election results indicate that Mr. Sharif might not be able to build a political consensus because of the prospect of a fragmented Parliament. (Read more about Nawaz Sharif's historic links to the military here.)

“Sharif is well-positioned to strive for civilian ascendancy given his ethnic background, as the majority of Pakistan’s Army hails from the Punjab Province – Pakistan’s most powerful province – his home base. The Army has historically not considered him a ‘security risk,’ ” says Mr. Rumi. Sharif originally came to power via the second military-ruler-turned-dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, who appointed him chief minister of Punjab in 1985.

“But, achieving such a rebalancing remains highly unlikely given the prospect of a hung parliament, a weak coalition government after the elections, and the likelihood of continued political instability,” says Rumi.

Though Sharif has had close ties to the military, he was also betrayed by it. In 1999, Pakistan's third military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, toppled him from his prime minister post, forcing him into exile for a decade. In interviews given to local and international press, Sharif has made sure to put the blame squarely onMusharraf’s shoulders, rather than the security institution itself. 

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Mr. Almeida is more skeptical, arguing that it is difficult to be absolutely sure about where Sharif stands.

“He has been out of power for 15 years, so a lot of people are asking: Will he be able to coexist with them? Will he trigger a clash? Will there be mutual mistrust? I think it’s difficult to answer that question,” says Almeida.

'Military still retains preponderant power'

An attempt by the previous government to bring the security forces to heel early in its tenure, via an announcement that the notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency was to be made accountable to the civilian government, failed abysmally.

The decision was reversed hours after it was announced.

The previous government, which was headed by the center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and its leader, current President Asif Ali Zardari, was known for focusing on domestic issues and letting the Army keep its dominance when it came to foreign and security policy, despite the fact that according to the Pakistani Constitution, the prime minister is technically in charge of the military.

Part of the reason this unwritten agreement will largely stay intact is because of how US and Pakistani interactions have tended to work: The US mostly deals directly with the military to handle issues of terrorism, because it has had the ultimate say on those things, say analysts. 

“Here’s the problem," says Almeida. "Going on how powerful the Army is, there is no reason to think that this particular relation, and therefore security and foreign policy, is really going to change.” 

“The military still retains preponderant power regardless of who wins,” said Seth Jones, an analyst at the Washington-based think tank RAND Corp., to journalists recently. 

An eye on the details 

Many analysts say that keeping an eye on which party wins specific constituencies will give a better picture of the direction in which Pakistan is headed.

For example, say electoral and civilian-military experts, whichever party takes control of the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – which includes the notorious tribal areas and borders Afghanistan – could play a key role in shaping the political environment and public discourse around some of the Army’s most controversial actions, like operations in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions and what many believe are tacit approvals for drone strikes.

Imran Khan, a former cricket player who is now the popular leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, is expected to perform especially well in this northern province, along with the right-wing Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl-ur Rehman (JUI-F). Known for their scathing criticism of both drone strikes and Pakistan’s relations with the US, some say that the parties could create a political environment that makes it difficult for the Army to continue its current policy in the tribal region. However, other analysts disagree vehemently, arguing that both Mr. Khan and the JUI-F retain close links with the Army. In 2002, several Army operations against militants took place under the watch of an Islamist-led alliance in Khyber Pakhtunkwa’s provincial government.

“Whoever wins will still have to contend with foreign policy challenges, corruption, and governance challenges," said Mr. Jones of RAND. "Those aren't going away."

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